Progressive Dark Money Group Blames GOP for Ebola Deaths

Democracy Alliance cofounder Erica Payne’s group says GOP is ‘directly’ responsible for thousands of deaths in attack ads

A licensed clinician sanitizes his hands after a simulated Ebola training session
A licensed clinician sanitizes his hands after a simulated Ebola training session / AP
October 14, 2014

A liberal dark money group behind ads blaming congressional Republicans for an Ebola outbreak in West Africa has deep ties to the left’s biggest and most secretive fundraising and collaboration apparatus, the Democracy Alliance.

Erica Payne, the founder and president of the Agenda Project Action Fund, the group behind the ads, also cofounded the DA. She also runs a consulting firm that counts the Alliance and a number of its supported organizations as clients.

Payne has established a reputation for bombastic and absurd broadsides against conservatives and Republicans, including a 2010 Agenda Project ad that accused Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) of literally killing senior citizens, and an anti-Tea Party campaign called "Fuck Tea."

Payne’s latest project seeks to tie congressional Republicans facing tight contests next month to the thousands of deaths from Ebola in West African nations stricken by the disease.

The campaign is called "Republican Cuts Kill."

"Like rabid dogs in a butcher shop, Republicans have indiscriminately shredded everything in their path, including critical programs that could have dealt with the Ebola crisis before it reached our country," Payne told supporters in an email.

"Yesterday, a health worker tested positive for the virus—now, the effects of the GOP's fanatical hatred for our government may finally be exposed," she added.

The ads come as senior officials at the National Institutes of Health suggest that budget cuts have hampered their abilities to develop effective Ebola remedies in a timely manner.

The ads fail to note that the U.S. Global Health Program budget has increased more than six-fold since 2001 or that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in January overwhelmingly approved a budget measure that increased funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by $567 million, an 8.2 percent increase over the previous year.

Despite that funding bump, Payne insists that an Ebola outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea is entirely the fault of congressional Republicans.

"In launching this effort, we will be the first major progressive group to directly blame GOP budget cuts for the nearly 4,000 deaths caused by the Ebola crisis," Payne wrote. Just one of those deaths has occurred on American soil.

"Our hope is that this ad and the accompanying report will spark a national conversation about the utter stupidity of the GOP's approach to government policy," she said.

It is not the first time Payne’s group has accused Republicans of literally killing people. A 2011 ad showed a man who looked like like Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) pushing a wheelchair-bound senior citizen off a cliff. The ad was attacking Ryan’s proposal to reform Medicare.

An Agenda Project campaign the year before was designed "to dismiss the tea party and promote the progressive cause," Payne said, by mocking Americans who engaged in grassroots political activism.

The campaign was titled "Fuck Tea."

Though the Agenda Project and its 501(c)(4) Action Fund arm occasionally make headlines with over-the-top political stunts, their budgets are relatively small.

Nearly $650,000 of the Agenda Project’s $907,000 budget in 2012, the latest year for which IRS filings are available, went toward the salaries and benefits for its employees. Payne took home more than $215,000 from the group, which ran at a $165,000 operating loss that year.

In addition to her work at the Agenda Project, Payne runs a political consultancy called the Tesseract Group. Both her nonprofit and her business have deep ties to the Democracy Alliance, a hub of left-wing money.

Payne herself is a DA co-founder. The Agenda Project is one of 180 groups listed on DA’s "progressive infrastructure map," a list of groups to which Alliance donors can steer money to satisfy their annual $200,000 giving requirements.

The Alliance discloses little about its operations, so it is difficult to know whether the Agenda Project was one of the 153 organizations to which DA donors steered nearly $70 million last year or whether it has received Alliance cash since then.

However, it has received significant funding from DA’s member foundations, including $30,000 from the Arca Foundation and $25,000 from the Stephen M. Silberstein Foundation,

The group also got $5,000 from the AFL-CIO in January, shortly before union chief Richard Trumka joined the DA as a "special guest" at its April donor retreat in Chicago.

While the Agenda Project enjoys a spot in the Alliance network, Tesseract consults for top DA-supported groups. Unlike Payne’s nonprofit, a number of those groups are "aligned network" organizations, or core DA groups that are more heavily involved in the financial and strategic coordination that the Alliance works to facilitate.

The Democracy Alliance itself is a Tesseract client. Alliance chairman Rob McKay calls Payne "invaluable" in a testimonial on Tesseract’s website.

Other clients include America Votes, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Roosevelt Institute, all of which are DA-aligned network organizations, as well as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which was previously an aligned network group and is now listed on the progressive infrastructure map.

It was not immediately clear whether Tesseract was involved with the Agenda Project’s Ebola campaign.

That campaign will "target more than two dozen Republicans, including almost every candidate in a competitive House or Senate race," Payne said on Monday.

She said that the group hopes to make a paid television ad buy in Kentucky next week targeting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.).